Film Reviews

Shame Steve McQueen

Rating - 6/10

When it comes to reviews there's always something of an elephant in the room that is barely ever addressed; that of expectation. It seems at the start of every year that some hotly tipped awards contender will fail to deliver on feverishly strong early word and, for me, this year's example is Shame, the latest from Turner Prize winner-turned-filmmaker Steve McQueen.

After the sterling work that he and star Michael Fassbender turned in on their first collaboration Hunger, anticipation for their next project would have been high no matter what they did, but throw in the fact that they were turning their attentions to the very timely, and very much taboo subject of 'sex addiction' (and that McQueen had given it a title that suggests a definitive, cutting, sign of the times howl of despair), and it's hardly surprising that as soon as the film premiered at the Venice Film Festival the word "brave" was thrown about with positive abandon.

But is Shame brave filmmaking? Yes, it must have been hard work for the actors to spend so much of their time baring all - in particular Carey Mulligan follows up her work in Drive by further removing herself from the English rose image she's somehow acquired; making her entrance in brutal, matter of fact, full frontal (although, judging by Fassbender's *ahem* endowment, one wonders if it was more a case of boasting rather than bravery). Also, no, it can't have been much fun for the crew to be surrounding by grinding naked bodies all day (or maybe it was?). Other than that though, what exactly is "brave" about Shame? Sex addiction may be a subject that's in desperate need of discussion, given that the general reaction to the disorder extends to unsympathetic eye-rolls and mutterings of "chance'd be a fine thing", but McQueen's film doesn't even bring a level of insight to the condition that you'd find on daytime TV talk-show. In fact any guy who's left a porno running after having shot his load will be more than aware of the feelings of guilt and disgust that Shame takes close to two hours to communicate.

Technically speaking there's pretty much nothing to find fault with in the film. In fact much could be said to be superlative about it - fittingly, given McQueen's video art background, the photography is exquisite, doing a fine job of capturing New York (a city that has been captured countless times before); the music, ranging from Harry Escott's elegant original score to some finely chosen classics (largely from the seventies and eighties) is never less than exceptionally tasteful; and Fassbender and Mulligan turn in some of their best work, with the former managing to turn his emotions, from cold detachment to irrational rage, on a six-pence.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of Shame's script, co-written by McQueen and ubiquitous writer du jour Abi Morgan (also scriptwriter for The Iron Lady and the BBC series The Hour and Birdsong, amongst many others). While, in a superficial sense, the dialogue itself seems fine, often having a pace and sheen to it, as a whole, there is an entire lack of sharpness or depth. Much like Morgan's recent work on The Iron Lady, questions linger as to why she seems so afraid of getting her hands dirty and why she is so determined to stay distant when the material is practically crying out for passionate argument.

Nor could it be said do the trials and tribulations of the central characters evoke much sympathy, despite those aforementioned incredible performances. Mulligan's Sissy is one of those overly dramatic flakes that only seem to exist in movies; the dark flip-side of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl while, Fassbender's Brandon may be in hell, but it is a very comfortable sort of hell, with the prostitutes and one night stands he resorts to all very Hollywood primped and clean (even the briefest of forays into the murky side of the internet show that the true face of sex addiction is far less photogenic). He may spend most of his time at work filling his hard-drive with porn, but that doesn't stop him from excelling in his cushy corporate job (theoretically, it could be argued that the film is hinting at the roots of his problem being born in the macho-culture of modern capitalism, with his interactions with David, his boss, solely filtered through skirt-chasing, "bros before hos" conversations, including one chilling example where David casually takes a break from video chatting with his young son to run through a ridiculously detailed list of pornography with Brandon, but it would be a fairly stretched, underdeveloped argument). As with The Iron Lady it could be said that Morgan's refusal to judge her characters is an admirable and unexpected decision, but not the right one; perhaps Brandon and Sissy need a degree of interrogation and judgement to unlock what makes them tick as, as it is, not only are they unpleasant company, but, more fatally, they're also boring.

So, the question as it stands is what exactly is Shame for, if not for insight (or, for that matter, entertainment). Perhaps McQueen wants to turn the dirty and degrading into something transcendent (a fairly common concern in the fine art world that he came from)? Occasionally he works wonders, such as when Escott's score is set against images of the of the most aggressive, outrageous gay bar this side of Irreversible, but such moments are merely brief flashes within the film's lengthy run time. Otherwise, what is there for us to learn from Shame? That Fassbender and Mulligan are exceptionally gifted actors? That McQueen is a director with a keen visual sense? That pornography is bad and people are increasingly isolated? That a low-key ambiguous ending is a good (but cheap) way to stimulate audience debate after the film has finished? All rather self evident points, but shamefully that's all Shame is interested in dealing with (and yes, I do hate myself for writing that sentence).